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8 January 2011

Wicked Whispers

It's Audrey season at the BFI at the moment and I thought I ought to see at least one new (to me) film of hers so I picked The Children's Hour. I hadn't even heard of it until recently when I read that it would be Keira Knightley's next West End role, alongside Elisabeth Moss (Peggy from Mad Men). The news story doesn't say but I'm fairly certain Knightley will be playing Audrey's character and Moss that of Shirley MacLaine (how could it be otherwise?).

The programme notes from the BFI include Arthur Knight's Saturday Review for the film on its original release in 1962 and include the comment, "[w]hat was considered too daring for 1936 is almost too tame for 1962." It will therefore be interesting to see how the 2011 stage production fares--and in which year it is set. I can't see that it would work with a contemporary setting, unless they made some serious changes to the script, but perhaps they will shift it back to 1934, when it first appeared in Broadway.

Karen Wright (Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (MacLaine) are teachers at the small boarding school they run for nice (rich) young girls. They enjoy their work, are the best of friends and everything is great. Well, apart from the fact that Karen's charismatic fiancĂ© Joe has a habit of hanging around and killing Martha's buzz. One of their charges is the odious Mary who scweams and scweams until she's sick (or, at least, until she "faints" or "has a heart attack"). Mary is a spoiled little madam, raised by her stern grandmother, who is perhaps having issues because of her absent (dead?) parents. She deals with this by blackmailing and threatening her fellow pupils to make them go along with her wicked ways and when Karen tries to tell her off for stealing a bunch of flowers and for not owning up, it's clear that Mary wants revenge.

Luckily for Mary, some of her minions overhear an argument between Martha and Martha's aunt, which hints that there might be something "unnatural" about the relationship between Karen and Martha. Mary runs away, tells granny, who is, at first, disbelieving but when Mary whispers in granny's ear some of the things she says she's heard, where else could Mary have found out about such "awful things" (the contraband books she reads, mainly)? Granny removes Mary from the school and encourages the other parents to do the same and soon the school is empty, despite Karen and Martha's attempts to try to convince people that nothing has happened between them. Karen can't even be sure that Joe (who is also Mary's cousin or uncle) really believes them. Things then take a tragic turn; hopefully, Mary receives more than the much-needed slap she gets from Joe earlier in the film as punishment for what she started.

MacLaine's performance is very moving--a number of people in the cinema were in tears at the end, although you kind of see the ending coming--and Hepburn is good at looking very sad and very beautiful. Certainly, it will be interesting to see Elisabeth Moss, now an expert on the position of women in the 1960s, will make of the role of Martha. Perhaps, though, the play won't have so much resonance with a 2011 audience (I'm sure that Ms Knightley's presence will ensure there are plenty of bums on seats nonetheless).

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